“Oh, look, the cherry tomatoes are ripe,” says Jek Tan. The executive chef at Fairmont Yangcheng Lake scrambles out of the buggy to pluck a handful, before returning to deposit a few firm red spheres into my outstretched palm. “They are a bit dusty, so rinse them before trying them,” he adds.
In almost any other place in China, eating anything freshly plucked would be discouraged. This is, after all, the land where farmers use pesticides and chemical fertilisers with a liberal hand and watermelons are doused with growth accelerants until they burst. But I’m on a tour of an organic farm that adjoins the hotel and things here are done differently. “We work hard to create a system of balance,” says Stephanie Zhu, the farm manager, who tells me that the land is fertilised by soil taken from the bottom of the lake, which means the residue deposited in the lake is cleaned out. “And diversity is an important way in which we make our crops less vulnerable to pests,” she adds.
Indeed, there are over 60 kinds of vegetables and 10 types of fruit trees crammed into the 16ha of farmland. I glimpse small paddy fields, rows of bittergourd, capsicum and chilli peppers, and trees laden with pomegranates and loquats.
Scattered around are tea bushes, with leaves that are plucked to produce the famous green tea Bi Luo Chun.
Zhu works closely with Tan, and her farm supplies the hotel with all its fresh produce – his menus reflect what her land can yield. Her calmness is a perfect foil for Tan, a Singaporean, whose lively banter is punctuated by cheerful greetings to farmhands, wisecracks, useful facts and frequent requests to “come and see this”.
So we hop out of the buggy often, to crouch by irrigation channels to watch tiny fish swimming in clear water, take a second look at a greenhouse used for seeding in winter and snap photos of goats returning to the pen. It’s an amazing rural idyll considering the fact that we are a mere hour and 10 minutes by car from Shanghai. You wouldn’t guess it – the sky is washed blue after a recent rain, the lake waters are pristine and the air crisp as a new sheet, scented with the smells of fresh earth, grass and manure.
We move on to the shiny new cooking school set up a few months ago for hotel guests wanting to hone their culinary skills. Next door is a restaurant, set to open in mid-October. Called Wugu (or Five Grains in Mandarin), it will specialise in Kunshan dishes.
“The local cuisine is heavy on river catch,” Tan says, striding through the sleek, modern space decked out in glass and bamboo, notable for its rectangular tables, unusual in a culture known for dining in circles. “And the vegetables will also come from Stephanie’s farm. So the menus will be seasonal and
Unpredictable yields are par for the course for them. In August 2013, a heatwave decimated much of their crops. But this cool and rainy August hasn’t benefited them either. “We had only nine days of sunshine this month,” Zhu says. “So our watermelon and okra production was badly affected.”
Zhu is candid about the struggles of the farm. Doing things the organic way is difficult anywhere, but China has its own set of unique challenges born of its food-safety issues. “Consumers here are very cynical. Some don’t believe that eating natural can help them. Others don’t believe that you are really organic – the fact that we have the certification doesn’t mean much to them.”
That is why farm tours are important for them. “Often, they only believe that we are truly organic when they see it with their own eyes.” Zhu acknowledges the educational role that the farm plays, over and beyond the production of fruit and vegetables. “We are here to set an example of responsible practices, to show that it can be done.” Indeed, although the industry is nascent, few would disagree that no one else needs the organic option more than the Chinese.
The Secret Lives of Bees
Our last stop is a sweet one. Tan introduces me to Ah Ping, a pretty woman dressed in traditional Nantong blue calico with a matching pink apron. She hands me a beekeeper hat and bids me stay calm as she ties the ends of the veil securely around my waist and rows me across a small river to the hives.
The 50 movable wooden boxes, stacked in piles in a shed and filled with frames of honeycomb, are home to about 20,000 bees. Ah Ping lifts out a frame to show me the queen bee, bright orange amid a sea of striped worker bees. “They are not in a good mood today,” she says with a smile as they buzz angrily around us, and I cast nervous glances at my unprotected arms.
But my worry is forgotten when Ah Ping passes me a scraping from the honeycomb – and a flood of wild golden sweetness rushes over my tongue. “It’s a tiring business,” she says, describing the process of harvesting honey. Everything is done by hand – lifting out the individual trays, shaking off the bees, placing the combs into metal drums to spin the honey out of them, before replacing the wax in the hives.
“My family has done this for years. We used to travel with the bees, timing our journey to coincide with the blooming of the flowers from the south to the north. It would take us from April to October every year.”
Now, they stay put on the farm, where the bees get to pollinate from a rich variety of flowers. “They produce less honey than when we used to travel, but the quality is so much better.” Honey production peaks in spring, when a hive can produce about 2kg a month.
We return to her simple cottage nearby, where she lets me taste two different batches of honey. The opaque white slabs on a plate look nothing like what I’m used to. One is redolent of a delicate chrysanthemum fragrance, while the other has a subtle perfume I cannot place. “That’s a spring honey and tastes of canola flowers which bloom then,” she tells me. “The other was made recently, when the chrysanthemums started to come out.”
I am enchanted by the idea of honey tasting of flowers in bloom at the time it is made. But there is much more to captivate my taste buds at the dinner Ah Ping whips up for me in her traditional kitchen with its wood-fired stove.
There is cold poached duck and pickles for starters, before a bowl of hong shao rou (Shanghai-style braised pork) is set on the table. This is followed by a creamy chive omelette, tiny sweet river shrimps and green vegetables freshly harvested that day. The pork melts in the mouth, and the okra, dressed in a simple sauce, is a succulent revelation. The meal is capped off with the rounded, rich flavours of a soup made of fish freshly caught from the river.
Indeed, the rustic simplicity of this dinner has been as memorable as any of the fancy feasts I’ve enjoyed by Michelin-star chefs along The Bund. A farm-to-table meal used to be the only way to dine, whether you were a peasant or a king. For this jaded urbanite living in one of the largest cities in the world, it was an experience that satisfied both the stomach and the soul.